Minnesota’s Digital Inclusion Forum leaves much to the imagination

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digitalliteracyforum2014The Technology Literacy Collaborative (TLC) held the third Digital Inclusion Forum at a somber Best Buy headquarters today.

“The digital divide [difference between those with basic technology literacy and those without it] affects us all, and as we move further into a technology-based society, digital inclusion ensures that all individuals can participate fully in the economic, educational, civic and social activities of our communities,” a program description posits.

Conversations touched on a range of sub topics — race factors, broadband access, media roles, civic engagement, tech careers, learning standards and more.  For the hundred or so present, this meeting of minds offers a unique opportunity to catch-up on who is doing what in terms of Minnesota’s digital inclusion aspirations.

And I couldn’t agree more with the premise of this gathering, which is why I’m here today.

Through firsthand experience and second hand storytelling,  we’ve witnessed the positive outcomes of many great digital inclusion efforts happening across Minnesota.   So, instead of writing an article today about the next startup company  — which would be both easier and more popular with our audience — I’m writing about a matter that most of Minnesota’s tech industry could care less about:  the future prosperity of Minnesota as it relates to fundamental technology skills.

Point blank, the Internet is a necessary tool for functioning in society today.

Simplistically speaking, digital inclusion a function of access (device+connection), education (training + testing), and application (employment + entrepreneurship); it predominantly affects the young and old, the disenfranchised and the disabled.  As Brad Von Bank, a former Target exec and pioneer of Reve Academy in North Minneapolis best said earlier:

“When you combine our education gaps with our technology gaps, we have a competitive gap.”

Reve Academy’s creative/tech/business model has emerged one of the most promising digital inclusion projects in Minneapolis.   As someone who is personally driving towards a better solution through the re-investment of of time, energy and cash — I have huge respect and appreciation for those, like Brad and company, who are leading by doing.

Yet with all the positive energy in the air today and all the potential for impact — it is with nothing but love for and loyalty to our great state that I share candid thoughts around the future of digital inclusion as it relates to Minnesota.  After observing and studying this situation for many years, conversing and collaborating with a diverse range of individuals and groups, I present the following barriers and opportunities:

+High on emotion. There’s plenty of deeply passionate and well intended people involved in the conversation and ongoing efforts.  Yet with all the energies expended, resources invested and time spent talking — there’s very little hard facts available around this topic.  When anecdotal stories and subjective viewpoints are dominating the direction and there’s a void in hard facts and transparency,  no-one wins.  One alarming fact that receives little to no attention: the scope of the digital divide problem in Minnesota or the rate at which it’s accelerating remains largely unknown.

Reality: You simply can’t solve for a problem if you don’t understand the extent of it.  Until there is sufficient R&D invested into the extent of this matter, any proposed solution is a lost cause.

+Sector imbalance.   There are over 2,000 technology companies in Minnesota and about five of them showed up today.   The nonprofit, education and government orgs are here in force, but when it comes to the digital inclusion conversation, private enterprise is completely disengaged. There continues to be a lack of express concern stemming from that direction, which is an amoral prerogative — no one owe’s anything to anyone, ever.  But don’t expect our tech industry to become internationally competitive without including those outside of it, those in the margin and most importantly the youth of today.

Reality: the public sector (manifested through government, nonprofit and education) is inherently resistant to systemic change and more often than not is in defense of mediocrity when it comes to getting serious about such issues as digital inclusion. 

+Leadership failure.  The TLC is great in theory and it clearly adds value towards addressing the digital divide in Minnesota.  In execution, however, it lacks vision and bold action towards changing the situation.  As an organically formed ‘convener of conveners’ it must evolve and grow to become better at its stated mission.

Reality:  The TLC was formed in 2006 and eight years later, there’s little to no tangible outcome at any scale, and no signs of traction that indicate a closing of the divide or bridging of the gap. Something needs to change from within this group before it can stimulate serious and sustainable action.  It (or something like it) needs to become so effective that it literally puts itself out of commission.  As a TLC member, I hold myself as accountable as anyone for this.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/casey__allen Casey Allen

    What a great post!

  • Cheryl Moeller

    Sounds like you need to see progress in the right direction, Jeff. Stop by Anishinabe Academy tomorrow (3100 East 28th St, Minneapolis) to see over 720 Minneapolis Public School youth programming their robots and presenting their innovative solutions on natural disasters. Robotics is not the only answer, but is one way to get kids excited about technology, regardless of their academic achievement level. Event is free and open to the public.

    • http://tech.mn Jeff Pesek

      There is definitely a need to see (more) progress in the right direction, Cheryl. I’m aware of the impact and reach with programs like High Tech Kids (http://www.hightechkids.org/) and the important role they play in the local tech ecosystem.

      “Robotics is not the only answer, but is one way to get kids excited
      about technology, regardless of their academic achievement level.”

      Fully agreed. What percentage of the participants do not possess basic digital literacy would you say? That is to understand where in the learning curve these youth are concentrated.

      Also it’s worth knowing – what companies by name support High Tech Kids and in what ways?

      • Cheryl Moeller

        Our financial funders and sponsors are: 3M, Boston Scientific, Stratasys, St. Jude Medical, Ecolab, H.B. Fuller, Lockheed Martin, Thomson Reuters, Magenic, Pentair, Xcel Energy Foundation, Merchant & Gould, and LEGO Education. Many of our volunteers come from these same organizations, other volunteer’s companies generously match their employee volunteer hours with a financial match. Our robotic programs (FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Tech Challenge) have been growing by 20% in the last few years, so we are seeing increased interest by both students, educators, and parents.

        • http://tech.mn Jeff Pesek

          That’s great, hats off to these companies for supporting!

      • Cheryl Moeller

        I think at the age of 9, the “digital gap” is not as obvious, but as they grow older, having few experiences with technology will leave them farther behind and have the attitude of “other students do technology, I only use technology”. We work closely with St. Paul and Minneapolis Public Schools, offering programming training to their educators who coach our FIRST LEGO League teams. Our programs in these school districts are concentrated in areas with high poverty.

        • http://tech.mn Jeff Pesek

          Interesting, Cheryl. I’m curious to learn whether or not High Tech Kids/FIRST is addressing youth caught on the wrong side of the digital divide.

          Are there participants who don’t own devices, don’t have internet at home and don’t know how to use the Internet?

          If so, what percentage do you think they represent? Are they the norm or the exception?

          Thanks for the time in responding.

          • Cheryl Moeller

            For our younger participants (the 9 to 12 year olds), most are unlikely to own their own devices. We haven’t asked students about their access to internet at home. I do know all of our students do research on the Internet, and most do this in their afterschool program. My guess is the students who participate in our programs are the exception, rather than the norm.
            Afterschool programs are great for those students interested in technology, but we need to reach all students. Teaching coding or other aspects of digital literacy in schools would have a greater impact on those students who do not have access to technology in their homes.

  • Bill Bushey

    I agree that more data collection and analysis of the situation is always needed. But I find it disingenuous to suggest that no research has occurred, and that local organizations are led only by anecdotal stories. For a third year, the City of Minneapolis will conduct a survey of resident access, knowledge of, and use of online technologies (it’s worth mentioning that Minneapolis is one of a very small number of cities world wide that conducts such a study). Nationally, Pew is just one example of an organization that has conducted several studies about the digital divide.

    The digital divide is a complex phenomenon; we’ll probably never have a complete understanding of it, which means we should always be studying it. But, immediate contributing factors are understood. They largely center around the need for various forms of education: a lack of understanding of the value of the internet and computing; a lack of knowledge of available options; a lack of digital literacy. Cost of technology and access, and lack of access to a technology support network are additional factors. As you look at organizations that are working on the digital divide, I think you’ll find that most organizations are focusing on one or more of these factors.

    • http://tech.mn Jeff Pesek

      “I find it disingenuous to suggest that no research has occurred, and
      that local organizations are led only by anecdotal stories. For a third
      year, the City of Minneapolis will conduct a survey of resident access,
      knowledge of, and use of online technologies (it’s worth mentioning that
      Minneapolis is one of a very small number of cities world wide that
      conducts such a study). ”

      That’s a great point Bill and one that I should have considered more when putting these words together. I’m aware of the research commissioned by the city of Minneapolis:

      http://tech.mn/news/2012/06/14/minneapolis-digital-divide-survey/
      http://tech.mn/news/2013/06/20/minneapolis-community-technology-survey-2013/
      http://tech.mn/news/2011/10/12/minneapolis-digital-inclusion-forum/

      Elise Gebhart and CIO Otto Doll are two examples of true internal champions for the public’s general tech concerns in the City of Minneapolis. And not just digital inclusion, but also open data (more on that topic to follow).

      To be more specific about “emotion” and also it clearer about my intention of the thought: data on youth between the ages of 13 – 18 in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This demographic is worthy of more focus.

      Perhaps that publicly funded research could be enhanced in the future to provide more granular segmentation? It’s not clear if there are 5,000, 10,000, or 20,000+ included, making it hard to define the financial scope by a factor 2-4x.

      That said, if someone reading this want to get paid to research this problem, please contact me.

      “The digital divide is a complex phenomenon; we’ll probably never have a
      complete understanding of it, which means we should always be studying
      it. ”

      You’re right, it is a complex phenomenon and as long as technology evolves, it will exist in one form or another. I’d suggest that we could have a much more thorough understanding of it – if we really wanted to.

      “But,
      immediate contributing factors are understood. They largely center
      around the need for various forms of education: a lack of understanding
      of the value of the internet and computing; a lack of knowledge of
      available options; a lack of digital literacy. Cost of technology and
      access, and lack of access to a technology support network are
      additional factors.”

      Could there be more immediate contributing factors other than those which you’ve outlined? The macro takeaways from our own preliminary research as outsiders
      analyzing a social situation through an entrepreneurial lens boiled down to the
      three points I outlined above.

      “As you look at organizations that are working on the
      digital divide, I think you’ll find that most organizations are
      focusing on one or more of these factors.

      Interesting. What organizations are you referring to and are any of them outside the scope of the public sector?

      Unrelated to your comment, but out of curiosity, how familiar are you with this story?

      http://blandinonbroadband.org/2012/03/22/minneapolis-digital-inclusion-fund-languishing/

      TL;DR: no easy or obvious answers…time for better questions?

  • Bill Linder-Scholer

    Jeff–Good piece on digital literacy. I appreciate your advocacy of the issue as well as your call for more/better data. Maybe what we need is better visibility for the existing programs providing digital literacy services. I can give two examples I know from personal experience (as a funder)–
    1) The Minnesota Literacy Council provides digital literacy training at the St. Paul Workforce Center and in other locations. I spent part of last year volunteering in the MLC digital literacy lab working with unemployed adults who lacked digital skills and needed to get the basics as part of their effort to get into the workforce.
    2) SPNN (St. Paul Neighborhood Network) has for several years run a program that trains AmeriCorps volunteers as technology technicians and sends them out to work in neighborhood-based social service agencies, some 25 or so around the Twin Cities.
    The public libraries also provide training and web access for many adults who lack digital literacy skills and also don’t have access to computers and the Internet in their homes.
    Thanks for raising the issue–

    Bill Linder-Scholer
    ADC Foundation (retired)
    former funder of digital literacy programs

    • http://tech.mn Jeff Pesek

      “Maybe what we need is better visibility for the existing programs providing digital literacy services.”

      Transparency is certainly part of it Bill, I would agree. As such, I have previously encouraged the TLC to take basic steps towards outlining who is doing what. If the TLC is to be the convener of all things DI/DD, that’s great and all, but please inform your members what everyone is up to.

      As far as I can tell – providing an organized semblance of visibility into the landscape would be the single most important thing the TLC could do given its role.

      Yet the introduction of this notion was met with an unusual amount of resistance by most (not all) on the TLC board. Ultimately (and unfortunately for those in need of immediate digital resources), I found the TLC board too bloated and bureaucratic — incapable of reaching consensus, let alone take any meaningful action.

      This is a huge red flag in terms of actual capacity to create tangible value as an organization.

      Could you think of a reason why someone might be against the collection, organization and dissemination of this sort of general info?

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